Institute awards funding for three major interdisciplinary research projects

URBANA (June 26, 2014) — The Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) is pleased to announce its first round of funding, totaling more than $940,000 for three major interdisciplinary research projects at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Two projects — an innovative water disinfection system, and an approach to agriculture that involves woody plants as an alternative to conventional crops — will each receive more than $400,000 from iSEE over the next three years. The third project, the development of stoves that use stored solar energy, will receive $140,000 over two years.

“Interdisciplinary research is a major part of what our Institute was created to do, and that holistic approach is critical. We can build teams across campus for ‘actionable research’ — projects that can produce impactful and lasting real-world solutions,” iSEE Director Evan DeLucia said. “This type of exploration was what Chancellor Phyllis Wise envisioned when our Institute was created.

“With the money we’re awarding today, we will begin shepherding projects in four of iSEE’s five major research themes.”



Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Benito Mariñas’ project, titled “Smart Water Disinfection: A Holistic Approach from Benchside to Marketplace,” fits into two of iSEE’s research themes: Water and Land Stewardship, and Sustainable Infrastructure. This project will work toward overcoming the safe water challenges currently plaguing emerging countries — and on the looming horizon of the developed world. Mariñas wrote in his proposal summary that the research will secure a large research center focused on the development of smart systems for safe global water.

He said the central ideas are to advance understanding of pathogen infectivity; develop an innovative sensor to detect infective pathogens; and create sound business strategies to get the disinfection system into local markets.

Mariñas has research experience in mechanisms of chemical and light inactivation of waterborne pathogens. He will work with Chemistry Professor Yi Lu, whose experience includes environmental monitoring, medical diagnostics and targeted drug delivery; Microbiology Associate Professor Joanna Shisler, who has worked on host-viral pathogen molecular interactions and viral immunology; Business Professor Madhu Viswanathan, who has studied subsistence marketplaces’ bottom-up approach at the intersection of low literacy, poverty and marketplace behaviors; and other collaborators with expertise in chemistry, sociology and environmental science and engineering.

“Smart disinfection systems with real-time sensors are critical in immediately detecting pathogens and removing contamination threats,” Mariñas said. “Our proposed holistic approach will finally enable truly sustainable solutions to the safe water challenges plaguing 780 million people and resulting in 1.8 million deaths and many millions more cases of chronic malnutrition each year worldwide.”



Crop Sciences Assistant Professor Sarah Taylor Lovell’s “Multifunctional Woody Polyculture for Sustainable Food Production” project fits into the iSEE research theme of Secure and Sustainable Agriculture. The goal of the project is to evaluate layers of tree and hedge crops with perennial yields — instead of annual herbaceous crops — as an option to “meet growing demands for healthy foods while advancing the sustainability of food production systems in the United States and abroad.”

A crop of various woody plants offers a sustainable solution because perennials allow for carbon storage and efficient use of resources, the land could yield more than one crop in its different layers, and a mix of fruit and nut species diversifies products and increases financial resilience, Lovell wrote in her proposal. “We will establish the University as a global leader in woody polyculture research.”

A new research farm, with several 1-acre plots, will be established to study the transition from conventional agriculture to a restored native ecosystem. Researchers also will compare the environmental, social and economic impact of perennial vs. annual farming.

Lovell specializes in multifunctional landscapes. She will partner with Agricultural and Consumer Economics Associate Professor Nick Paulson, who works in ag economics and policy; Civil and Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor Jeremy Guest, who has experience in life cycle assessment and water quality; Plant Biology and Geology Assistant Professor Wendy Yang, who examines global change and biogeochemistry; Natural Resources Professor Michelle Wander, who has experience in agroecosystem management; Crop Sciences Professor Bruce Branham, an expert in sustainable local food systems; and others.

Though improvements to our agricultural systems — such as cover crops, precision management and organic production — are being studied, “transformative solutions are needed to overcome critical challenges to the sustainability of food production,” Lovell wrote. Those challenges include a lack of resilience in normal crops, the loss of soil quantity and quality, the prevalence of inorganic chemicals in freshwater, and deteriorating biodiversity and ecosystem resilience, “all of which are exacerbated by global climate change and growing domestic and global populations in need of a reliable food supply.”



Agricultural and Biological Engineering Professor Bruce Elliott-Litchfield’s project, titled “Solutions for the Global Cooking Problem: Developing Stored Solar Stoves,” fits into iSEE’s Energy Transitions research theme. He and fellow researchers will study what temperatures and physical configurations are needed for a stove that can be used at night without burning a fire, what means are feasible for energy concentration and collection, what storage innovations are preferable, and how best to recover and use the stored energy. The group will develop prototype cooking systems for field testing.

“Initial work will focus on cooking, and later on space heating, water purification, food preservation, generation of electricity, and other applications,” he wrote in his proposal. Outcomes from the research could “provide the basis for a generic energy solution that can be employed for multiple purposes beyond cooking — a dire need in poverty contexts around the world.”

Litchfield has training and experience in food processing, global service learning and stored solar applications. He will work with Business Professor Madhu Viswanathan, who has studied subsistence marketplaces’ bottom-up approach at the intersection of low literacy, poverty and marketplace behaviors; and Tami Bond, a Civil and Environmental Engineering Associate Professor who is a global expert on stove emissions and household energy.


“We are quite excited about these three projects,” DeLucia said. “All three are expected to address very real problems this world faces with solutions that will help a growing population in a way that doesn’t continue to deplete Earth’s dwindling resources.”

The Institute, approved by the U of I Board of Trustees in December 2013, was created to foster cross-campus, interdisciplinary research into global sustainability, energy, and environmental problems. By selecting these projects, iSEE is fulfilling the promise for one of its three major missions; the other two are campus sustainability, and education and outreach. DeLucia said the Institute will make another request for proposals in the next academic year.